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Red Bank Library
Mar 16, 2018

A Local Library’s Antidote for Fake News

Red Bank Library

One of the most newsworthy subjects covered in today’s electronic and print media is fake news. Technological developments in the field of communication were expected to produce an Information Age. Tragically, increasing reliance on both digital news outlets and social media has produced a “Misinformation Age : in which  numerous deliberately misleading stories are circulated and received as accurate depictions of the world around us. This article describes the steps undertaken by libraries in general, and the Red Bank Public Library (RBPL) specifically, to protect patrons from the scourge of fake news.

The Problem: Nowadays, finding information  on an almost limitless number of issues is as easy as opening a browser on your computer or phone, typing the question you want answered or the subject about which you want to learn, and waiting a second or two for a list of links to be displayed.  As a result, 62 percent of U.S. adults get their news in real time from uncurated social media feeds in which falsehoods abound (Pew Research Center, 2016).  Students, in particular, frequently confuse paid advertising with genuine news reporting, and often they are unaware of distinctly biased claims in the material they read (Stanford History Education Group, 2016).

It has always been judicious to be modestly skeptical while consuming the news.  However, the proliferation of media outlets requires us to determine which of the sources contain accurate, verifiable information, and which are bunk.  Because purveyors of false information cleverly disguise their intentions and deceptive content, consumers must develop media literacy – i.e., thoughtful fact-checking and cross-referencing – in order to recognize unbiased, fact-based news.

The Role of Libraries: Although there is no easy solution to the problem of fake news, libraries must be involved in addressing it.  Given their vital role in serving the information needs of their communities, it is incumbent upon libraries to assist patrons to evaluate the information that they uncover with library resources, and to help them in reframing ideas about navigating the Internet.  To this end, the American Library Association has developed policy statements, instructional material (e.g., toolkits and webinars), and collections of articles that address media literacy.  A fair number of academic libraries (e.g., the University of California, Berkeley, and Bowdoin College) and public libraries (e.g., Oakland, California and Dallas, Texas) have prepared material to inform their patrons about fake news and inspire them to become media literate.

The RBPL Response: The RBPL has taken two steps to address the dangers of fake news and to inform patrons about methodologies for distinguishing published fact from broadcasted fiction.  First, akin to a few New Jersey public libraries that invited a speaker to discuss fake news (e.g., Denville and Belmont), the RBPL offered a three-part program in the Fall of 2017 featuring a media studies professor, prominent area journalists, and educators from Red Bank schools. The sessions were well attended and received excellent reviews from their audiences.

Second, the RBPL developed a webpage that offers patrons an online collection of information that can enhance their media literacy.  This project began by creating an annotated bibliography of important material related to fake news.  As opposed to an ordinary bibliography that simply identifies references used in an article or book, an annotated bibliography provides the reader with a concise summary and evaluation of the content of each referenced item. Transformation of the annotated bibliography into a functioning RBPL online research guide was accomplished by Matt Hershberger.  This webpage is available by clicking on the icon that is contained on the home page of the RBPL website.*

The fake news webpage contains text as well as links to online resources that are appropriate for both young and adult patrons.  Definitions of terms associated with fake news (e.g., disinformation and post-truth) comprise Part I on the page.  Part II contains a collection of important articles on media literacy (e.g., New York Times and the Poynter Institute) that discuss methods for recognizing fake news.  As is true of the remainder of the webpage, links are provided for each entry that delivers the patron to the cited material.

The most trusted fact-checking sites (e.g., Politifact and Snopes) are described in Part III.  These permit the patron to determine the accuracy of claims made by both partisan and nonpartisan figures. Part IV directs the patron to instructional material in the form of webinars intended for adult media literacy training.

Parts V through VII were created to offer both articles and information about instructional programs intended for high school and college students. A wealth of information is accessible regarding specialized media literacy programs and college library websites.  Finally, miscellaneous, but related sources make up Part VIII.

Given the economic incentives for creating clickbait-worthy fake news that is shared on social media, we will be confronted for the foreseeable future by information of a dubious nature.  Such fake news undermines political discourse and represents a clear and present threat to our democracy.  According to Sam Wineburg, professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, “Reliable information is to democratic functioning what clean air and water are to public health . . . Nothing less than our capacity for online civic reasoning is at risk.”

Calls seeking to determine the availability of an online compilation of information pertaining to media literacy and fake news found no reference tool akin to the RBPL webpage available at other regional public libraries. On behalf of the RBPL, I am pleased to be able to offer its webpage as an antidote to the fake news plague.

You may directly access the fake news webpage at this Web address:

Submitted by Michael E. Gordon

Member, Foundation Board of the RBPL